Ghost nets haunt the Hawaiian shores, a seemingly insurmountable problem, but researchers from Hawaii Pacific University are taking a close look at where they came from.

The Hawaiian islands lie between two massive repositories of floating waste – the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to the east, and a lesser gyre to the west. In both cases, the natural swirl of wind and currents collect trash from around the Pacific Ocean. And much of it winds up in Hawaii’s sensitive reefs and beaches.

For all the public movements about plastic straws and single-use plastics, a huge percentage of floating trash in the oceans is derelict fishing gear. And of this, “ghost nets” have the potential to do the most harm. Fishing nets, some of them literally miles long, that have been lost or left at sea continue to do damage for decades. Free-floating in the ocean, they entangle and drown sea life. Approaching shore, they drag across sensitive coral reefs, tangling coral heads and tearing them out with wave action.

“These nets bulldoze over our reefs before they hit shore,” said Drew McWhirter, a grad student at Hawaii Pacific University, and lead researcher in a study aimed at determining the major sources of derelict fishing waste.

The study will look at nets collected from the vicinity of Hawaii, analyzing their make-up to try to trace each net back to a manufacturer. They hope that a database of where the waste is coming from will help target which nations and fisheries produce the most waste, leading to some kind of accountability.

An estimated 640,000 tons of fishing gear is discarded or lost each year, and sampling expeditions indicate that it makes up as much as half of all solid waste floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Most of it is assumed to come from less-regulated fisheries attached to poorer nations, but the researchers from HPU have found ghost nets from every single country bordering the Pacific Ocean, just in April of this year.

Photo: Shutterstock